Many people ask the question of whether cookies are harmful for their computers. The answer is generally no, but it is not nearly as straightforward as it sounds. While cookies are often stored in text files, only used to track information that is already provided to various websites, and are set to expire in short periods of time, they can be used for malicious purposes in certain instances. You will need to work with cookies - however, if you know when to delete them and when not to, you can still enjoy the conveniences they provide.
When Cookies are Good
Cookies are used by websites and browsers to store basic information about your Internet use. If you visit a pet store online and commonly look at cat products, the store will install a cookie that saves your preferences and tracks which pages you look at, not only telling the company what their customers are viewing, but giving you targeted results on the front page.
In addition, bulky information such as IP addresses and browser preferences for a website can be stored in a cookie, saving time when loading a website you often visit. Generally, cookies are used as a shortcut to load information that you have already provided to a website, presenting no security risk on well known, established websites.
When Cookies are Bad
It is on websites that are not well known and established that cookies may become a concern. Because they can be installed without your knowledge, cookies can be installed by a third party from a website that is less than desirable. If you enter login information on a website that installs a cookie on your computer for malicious purposes, that individual can then take the information stored in that cookie and try to use it to steal other pieces of your information. This is easily solved in most cases by setting a higher security level for cookies, requiring that the browser ask you before saving any cookies to your browser or hard drive.
Another possible way in which cookies can negatively affect your computer is when they are stored on your hard drive for too long. Generally, the information there is safe because it is non-executable text files. However, if malware or spyware is installed on your computer, it may be possible for it to access those cookies and start retrieving your login, email, and personal information and sending it back to whomever installed the spyware.
Being Safe with Cookies
Cookies are necessary to run an Internet browser. They make it possible to visit most websites and can actually speed up and make your browsing experience safer. To feel more at ease and safer with them on your computer, you should set your browser to delete cookies on a more regular basis. Some may save up to 30 or 60 days automatically. With a third party privacy tool or by setting the browser to delete them every day, you can remove them from your hard drive before anyone can access and use your information. In combination with a good spyware removal tool and sensible browsing habits, you can overcome the possible negative effects that cookies might have on you and your PC's privacy.